Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, Part 3

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Read Section 1 and Section 2.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

III. What's the Dirt on Cleaners?

Let's look at household cleaning products. Now we understand how a chemical that may cause asthma, cancer or birth defects could be in this product, sitting on the shelf at the grocery store. But there's one more piece to the non-regulation of cleaning products in this country, and that is that they are not required to list their
ingredients on the label.

A leading laundry soap, for example, has more than 400 ingredients, but the manufacturer calls them a "trade secret" and doesn't list them on the box. So the first thing to look at, when you are buying cleaning products, is the ingredient list.

If the manufacturers won't tell you what's in their product, do you trust it enough to spray it in your tub and literally put your naked child in that tub? Choose only products that list all ingredients on the label, so you know what you're getting.

What are the chemicals of concern in cleaning products? This piece focuses on two categories of chemicals: those that cause asthma, and those that cause reproductive harm like birth defects. We focus on these because they affect women and children, who are most likely to be using the cleaning products, and home when they are being used.

Some of the known health effects of chemicals in common cleaning products are: -- several are known to cause occupational asthma in cleaning workers. -- animal studies have shown reproductive harm: testicular damage, reduced fertility, maternal toxicity, early embryonic death, and birth defects.

So where are we with the science? Obviously we can't say "this bottle of cleaning fluid caused this child to get asthma." What we do know is that several studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with asthma in cleaning workers -- the people who are exposed to them every day. We do know that janitorial workers have twice the rate of asthma as other workers.

With the reproductive toxins, obviously it would be unethical to expose a pregnant woman to these products and then see if it hurts her baby. So instead we rely on animal studies. (Some people, of course, also find animal studies unethical.)

We do know that several of these chemicals get absorbed through the skin, and by breathing them. As previously mentioned, we find chemicals of concern in our blood, urine, breastmilk and umbilical cord blood.

So what do we do in this situation? The evidence is piling up, but we can't say for sure that any single product is harming any one of us. Well, what would you do if something was potentially harming your child? You'd take it away!

In the face of scientific uncertainty, which is where we are now, how do you take action? That part is simple: you take precaution. You think "better safe than sorry." You think "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." These are time-tested ideas for a reason: they're smart, and they keep us safe.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

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